They haven’t been all that successful this season, but the University of Maine men’s hockey team certainly has been stingy.
Only one team — New Hampshire — has allowed fewer goals in Hockey East action than the Black Bears, who breathed life into a heretofore moribund season last weekend by sweeping defending national champion Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass.
The Black Bears (7-14-4 overall, 3-9-4 Hockey East) remain in last place in the conference, but only one point behind Northeastern, two behind Vermont and three behind UMass. Those three teams will play Maine five times in the final month of the season, so qualifying for the eight-team tournament remains well within Maine’s reach.
“We’re not under any false illusions that things are going to come easy,” Maine head coach Tim Whitehead said. “We’re still going to have to fight and claw for every point.”
One reason for optimism has been the emergence of junior goaltender Martin Ouellette, who took over from incumbent Dan Sullivan in November and has helped keep the Black Bears competitive while they try to figure out ways to improve their scoring.
Instead of sulking, Sullivan — also a junior but at 24 is three years older than Ouellette — has been one of his roommate’s biggest supporters. That’s right, they’re roommates and good friends, despite competing for playing time.
“Dan’s been unbelievable,” said Whitehead, who privately complimented Sullivan recently for the way he has handled a potentially prickly situation. “He said to me, ‘I want to be as supportive as Marty was for me last year.’ They’re very close. They’re pulling for each other all the time.”
Ouellette grew up in Saint-Hippolyte, Quebec about 45 minutes northwest of Montreal. His first language is French. He started learning English at a prep school in New Hampshire, Kimball Union Academy, where he spent two years before arriving in Orono as an 18-year-old.
“It was hard at the start, but I kept getting better and better,” Ouellette said. “I’m used to it now, but the first few years it was a big adjustment (taking classes in English), especially when I had to write.”
A business management major, Ouellette played in nine games as a freshman and nine more as a sophomore. In each of the past three summers, he has spent a week at a development camp with the NHL Columbus Blue Jackets, who drafted him in 2010 out of prep school.
Not until the sixth game of this season did he get a start, but he soon emerged as the starting goalie.
Entering this weekend’s games in Orono against Providence tonight and UMass-Lowell Sunday afternoon, Ouellette sports a 2.12 goals against average in the conference and a .922 save percentage. He held Boston College — the highest-scoring team in Hockey East and ranked third in the country — to a pair of third-period goals in last weekend’s 3-1 and 4-1 upsets. Not since 1993 had Boston College been swept in a weekend series at home.
“Normally we give him such a slim margin for error,” Whitehead said. “Guys were determined to give him some breathing room. We got a couple goals off the fore-check and a couple off the rush and he was able to relax and play at his best.”
Hockey East named Ouellette its defensive player of the week and of the month. Although his record is only 5-7-4, his overall 2.08 goals against average is 19th in the country and tops among Hockey East goaltenders.
“Now he’s playing with more patience and more composure and it’s really allowed him to reach another level,” Whitehead said. “What’s really exciting is that we think there’s more growth to go.”